Once upon a time, Mike Zimmer envisioned 2016 seventh-round pick Jaylon Kearse as an extra weapon in the versatile “big nickel” role. And for a brief time, it happened.
Over the last two seasons, Kearse played at least 10 snaps in the slot in nine games including a career high 36 in Week 1 of 2019 (per PFF). But his snap count completely disappeared after Week 7 and in the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff matchups against the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, Zimmer called upon veteran Andrew Sendejo to handle the nickel duties in the place of injured Mackensie Alexander.
The exact reasoning — whether it was something about his play or his attitude, his tweets or an arrest — is hard to pin down but overall using him inside was a success. Per PFF, he gave up 10 completions on 13 targets for 75 yards, had two PBUs and 13 tackles during the three games in which he played the “big nickel.”
With Kearse leaving in free agency, the Vikings could be on the lookout for their next uniquely size/skilled player to handle a versatile role in the secondary/linebacking corps. They drafted three players who could qualify in fourth-round pick Troy Dye and seventh rounders Josh Metellus and Brian Cole.
Dye is an undersized linebacker from Oregon whose specialty is coverage but also had a tendency to find the ball carrier.
“He led his team for four seasons in tackles, I don’t think that’s ever been done at Oregon,” director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson said. “So undeniably, it’s the playmaking aspect.”
With Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson already locking down the top three spots and Ben Gedeon and Cameron Smith known as run stuffers, Dye could have an opportunity to see the field early in his career if he can prove valuable in the passing game against larger targets.
“I take a lot of pride in my coverage skills,” Dye said. “I think that’s one of the things I do pretty well. I think it’s a big part of the game in today’s day and age. I think to win games you have to cover these tight ends and these running backs in space and I think I do a good job of that. I think it’s a tool that I have in my tool box.”
The NFL appears to be headed in a direction which has more big people challenging linebackers. The 49ers use fullback Kyle Juszczyk all over the field while the Vikings played two tight ends consistently with a good deal of success. The Bears and Packers both drafted tight ends and the Lions picked TJ Hockenson in the first round last year. Plus Rob Gronkowski is now on the 2020 schedule with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
If there is a fundamental shift to get more fullbacks and tight ends on the field, an extra speedy coverage linebacker could get into the mix.
Mike Renner wrote in PFF’s draft guide: “If I could pick one linebacker after Isaiah Simmons to run the seam with a tight end, it would be Dye.”
In the secondary, the Vikings entered the draft with no backup safeties. They picked two on Day 3 in Josh Metellus and Brian Cole.
Metellus played all over the field for Michigan, splitting his snaps between free safety (328 snaps, per PFF), box safety (302) and cornerback (163).
“Moving around definitely helps me because at the end of the day I just want to be able to get on the field,” Metellus said. “Moving around at Michigan has helped me a lot getting a different feel for the game and helping my football IQ. That’s the biggest thing, I’ll be able to come in and do whatever the coaches ask.”
While scouting reports indicate that he isn’t an exceptional deep safety prospect he only allowed a 50% completion percentage on throws against per PFF and he worked out in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl, which Metellus said impressed the Vikings’ coaches.
“It was talked about because the one-on-ones were one of the main things that I felt like I wanted to highlight at the Senior Bowl,” he said. “Coach called me and we talked about it and he was really impressed with the one-on-ones.”
Metellus does not have Kearse or Dye’s size at 5-foot-11, 209 pounds but he has a keen tackling ability and strength (he did an impressive 20 reps at the Combine). His experience in the box and hitting could eventually combine for a “big nickel” role if he can cover bigger players off the line of scrimmage and master Zimmer’s defense.
Cole’s size is somewhere in between Dye and Metellus. He came in at 6-foot-2, 213 pounds at the Combine and ran a solid 4.52 40-yard dash.
Per NFL.com’s draft write up, he played a hybrid type role but is the farthest away from having a role in the defense next year.
“He flashes traits and potential to become a more impactful run defender but gets lost in coverage and can be exploited,” Lance Zierlein wrote.
Cole will need time to develop as a former receiver that transferred to community college before ending his college odyssey at Mississippi State. He’ll need to prove himself on special teams first.
Without OTAs or minicamp, adding any extra wrinkles for rookies playing catch-up could be difficult in camp. If the Vikings can find a “big nickel” type, it will be an advantage — and they might need every edge they can get with a crop of rookie and inexperienced corners setting up to play important roles next year.